What is happening in this dark painting? Two wide bands of orange
curve up from the lower left, then shoot out of the painting at the
upper right. In between them, a yellow Z shape is placed at an
angle. It catches our eye because it is so bright against the dark
Oil on canvas
27 x 23 inches (68.6 x 58.4 cm)
Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe for
the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987,
What is the brightest color in this
painting? What is the darkest?
What shapes do you see?
Do they appear to be still or
moving? How can you tell?
Which one could be the horizon?
Which ones looks like letters
of the alphabet?
Where could this be?
What time of day? Why?
What do you think is happening?
background and it seems to be moving! Behind, a strip of dark red
extends quietly from one side of the painting to the other, like a horizon line. Look how the orange arcs and the red band form a cross
with four arms that stretch out into the darkness and touch three
sides of the canvas. The focal point of the painting is the angular,
yellow form that overlaps the red band and the black background.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted Red and Orange Streak in 1919, soon
after she moved from Texas to New York City. She had been greatly
impressed by the wide-open plains of Texas, especially at night when
she took long walks by herself. In the pitch-black darkness, certain
sounds like a train whistle or cattle lowing for their calves suggested
shapes and colors to her. Storms, which can be seen approaching
from far away in the flat Texas landscape, also fascinated her. The
sky was like an enormous canvas, and the lightning appeared to be
giant, jagged writing scrawled across it, just for an instant. In a letter
to a friend, O’Keeffe wrote: “the whole thing—lit up—first in one
place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just
sheet lightning—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright
What part of the painting seems
closest? Most far away? Where is
the focal point, the part your
eye is most drawn to? Why?
Find some places where the
colors blend gradually. Where are
they separated by clean edges?
What sounds do you think of
when you look at this painting?
zigzag flashing across—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just
looking at the lightning.”
Back in New York City, O’Keeffe remembered the natural world
that had surrounded her in Texas and she wanted to express her
intense responses to that environment. She did this by abstracting,
or simplifying, what she had seen, heard, and felt there and by eliminating details. Some of her shapes suggest solid forms while others
seem more like empty spaces. Look at the long, pointed spaces between the orange arcs—one
thrusting upwards, the other downwards. How do they make you feel? Notice how some of the edges
between colors are crisp and clean, while others blend and blur. In the background, the horizontal
band of red has just enough modeling (light and dark areas that show three-dimensional form) to
suggest a mountain range in the distance. Georgia O’Keeffe’s dramatic painting, based on her vivid
memories of Texas, exists on the edge of abstraction, inviting us to experience it in our own ways.
Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to an Irish father and a Dutch-Hungarian mother
in 1887. The second of seven children, she lived on her family’s large farm until she was fifteen years
old. She came from a family of independent women. Her grandmothers were frontier wives who
raised their families alone. She also had two unmarried aunts who became professional women at a
time when that was unusual. At the age of ten, Georgia decided that she wanted to be an artist.
When her family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, she attended a girls’ boarding school where the art
teacher recognized her talent and urged her to go to professional art school after graduation.
O’Keeffe’s studies at the Art Institute of Chicago included drawing from plaster casts of idealized
human figures made by ancient Greek and Roman artists. She also studied painting at the Art
Students League in New York City. Although she excelled in this academic approach, she soon tired
of copying traditional art. After working in Chicago for a year as a freelance illustrator, she returned
to Virginia and briefly taught art classes at her old high school. At her sister Ida’s suggestion, she
enrolled in a drawing class at the University of Virginia. This class, based on the innovative ideas of
Arthur Wesley Dow, rekindled her passion for art. Dow stressed self-expression and was inspired by
Japanese art principles, such as balancing light and dark, using open space, and respecting nature.
Dow taught his students to make harmonious compositions based on the relationship of design
elements. O’Keeffe learned about modern art and embraced the idea that pure colors and abstract
shapes could express thoughts and feelings.
During the next four years, O’Keeffe held teaching jobs in Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas.
In South Carolina, she began a series of charcoal drawings called Specials, which she described
as “working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself.” On an impulse, she sent
the drawings to her friend Anna Pollitzer in New York City. Pollitzer showed them to a famous
photographer named Alfred Stieglitz, who immediately exhibited them at his fashionable gallery! In
1916, O’Keeffe returned to New York City to study with Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University’s
Teachers College. In New York, she experimented with drawing to music for the first time and she
met Alfred Stieglitz.
Soon Stieglitz and O’Keeffe began working together, and eight years later they were married. They
lived in New York City and spent summers at the Stieglitz family’s country estate in Lake George,
New York. By 1929, however, O’Keeffe began to feel cramped by their social lifestyle and decided
to spend the summer in Taos, New Mexico. New Mexico reminded her of the wide-open spaces
of Wisconsin and Texas and revived her spirits. She returned to New Mexico each summer until
Stieglitz’s death in 1946, when she moved there permanently. O’Keeffe continued making paintings
and—after her eyesight failed—pottery until her death in 1986.
Very much a modern woman, Georgia O’Keeffe took full advantage of the opportunities available
to women at the beginning of the twentieth century. She traveled on her own and read widely,
exchanging ideas with a wide circle of female friends and artists, as well as the group of male artists
around her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Although she was not an activist, she supported women’s
struggles for independence at key moments. In 1944 she wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt asking
her to support the Equal Rights Amendment: “Equal Rights and Responsibilities is a basic idea . . .
I would like each child to feel responsible for the country and that no door for any activity they may
choose is closed on account of sex. It seems to me very important to the idea of true democracy—to
my country—and to the world eventually—that all men and women stand equal under the sky.”
O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, was a photographer and also an art dealer who owned a gallery
called 291 in New York City. He introduced her to the New York art world, took five hundred photographs of her, ands sponsored twenty solo exhibitions of her work. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz shared
similar interests and influenced each other. Stieglitz made Rainbow in 1920, a year after O’Keeffe
painted Red and Orange Streak. Can you see the ways in which O’Keeffe influenced Stieglitz?
Learn about lightning—what causes it, the different types of lightning, and how different climates and
geography affect it.
Find out about other American modernists: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin.
Make a timeline comparing the lives and artworks of Violet Oakley and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Research the history of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Search through memories of storms that you have experienced and pick the most riveting one. Were
you at home, at school, or on vacation? In the country, the city, or the suburbs? What part of the
country were you in? Was it night or day? How did you feel? Was it a rainstorm, a silent snowstorm,
or a roaring hurricane? Make ten small watercolor paintings on index cards, showing the sights and
sounds of your storm. Choose the one you like best, or combine elements from several to create a
larger composition using oil pastels.
This painting is included in Five Women Artists, a set of teaching posters and resource book
produced by the Division of Education and made possible by generous grants from Delphi Financial
Group and Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company.